Dear Rev. Boulware;

I just needed to let you know what life in the funeral industry has been like these past weeks. When they said two weeks ago the next two weeks would be rough, they did not lie. It has been relentless, because people did not stop dying and life continued to happen in spite of the COVID-19 virus. It has been mentally and spiritually draining dealing with the mounting body counts. No one could’ve prepared me for this, even after seeing bodies loaded into a refrigerated truck because they were unclaimed or there was just no place to put them. 

Last week when I saw over 500 bodies buried in a large grave on Harts Island, my heart was so grieved. Grieved because those persons died alone without family at their bedside, holding their hands or feeling the presence of a loved one in the room. Their families will not get the opportunity to view their bodies and celebrate the life they lived. We have not reached the magnitude of deaths in New York, but we have experienced the deadly results of this virus. We have experienced the grief now compounded by the fact that the funeral they wanted to plan, has been reduced to 10 family members seated in a church or a chapel, separated from each other because of social distancing. There will be no hugs, handshakes, or hands that will gently wipe tears. They will not be surrounded by friends and families at public viewings, sharing stories about their now deceased loved one. Social distancing has not only affected our lives but affected how we come together in death.  There are days when I want to touch someone on the shoulder or give them a comforting hug, while whispering, “Everything will eventually be alright.” Social distancing keeps us from doing the things that are a major part of the funeral industry. So I retreat to my office, listen to some music and whisper a prayer asking God to comfort, strengthen and keep them.  

As I write this I am exhausted. Exhausted from being around death all day. From the moment I walk in the door, death is there waiting to greet me. You might ask isn’t that what happens in the funeral industry? Some days death passes us by. Some days it may two.  Even during our busiest times there are moments we get a chance to pause and prepare for the next wave. These past few weeks it may be upwards six or seven with more waiting in the wings to come in. I’ve watched my coworkers run relentlessly all day, with only moments to catch their breath, from hospitals, homes, nursing homes and hospice centers, never knowing what they may be walking into and what they might face. When we began to get our first COVID-19 cases, I could see the fear on their faces as they gathered their PPE to do what they’ve done many times over. I remember speaking with one of my coworkers upon his return from a COVID-19 call and he said, “I had to sit in the van for a few moments to get my head right before going in.” I felt what he said because I had just come back in from sitting in my car for a few moments. The heaviness of death can be suffocating, and the number of calls can be overwhelming. Everyone talks about the health care system being overloaded, but no one gave us a clue or inkling of what it would do to the funeral industry.  We are learning every day how to navigate. Weighing the need to be safe while balancing the need to be compassionate, sympathetic and sensitive to the needs of the families we serve.

I thank God for my network who keep me lifted in prayer. There have been days when before beginning my day I have to speak life over myself to get motivated and moving. There are days when I am so immersed in death that it consumes me, not allowing me to sleep at night. I’ve had to stop watching the news because when they show the number of COVID-19 deaths, I now have a name that can be associated with a number. Or I can associate a name with a county in the state of Maryland. There are days when I am not okay and I thank my Bishop for teaching me that it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to feel helpless but hopeful. As I close this letter, because I could go on and on, I encourage you to pray for the last responders, funeral directors, embalmers, funeral home owners, limousine drivers, office personnel, removal teams, receptionists, musicians and clergy who work in the industry. Pray that God will strengthen and keep them. Pray for families grieving, altering death rituals and dealing with the pain of not being able to be with their loved ones as they make the transition from life to death. Fourteen years in the industry never prepared me for this. 

An exhausted, but dedicated funeral assistant

Baltimore, Md.

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